As soon as A’ja Wilson appeared on the floor of Colonial Life Arena on Sunday, South Carolina fans could be forgiven for taking a gloomy outlook on the No. 9 Gamecocks’ chances against No. 6 Tennessee.
Sporting a bright pink cast on her injured ankle and riding a scooter, the All-American Wilson was definitely not ready to play against the Lady Vols.
But despite the absence of its biggest star, Dawn Staley’s squad put together a spirited performance — it just wasn’t enough, as USC dropped its third game of the season, 86-70.
Without Wilson, the Gamecocks (14-3, 3-2 SEC) made a game of it, electrifying the home crowd with gritty play and a furious comeback in the fourth quarter, but in the end, they simply didn’t have the depth to run with a versatile Tennessee team.
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“We ran out of gas, and they just kept going,” sophomore guard Tyasha Harris said of Tennessee’s attack. “They had a lot of firepower off the bench, and they could sub and continue going.”
In particular, South Carolina struggled to contain Tennessee’s potential All-Americans Mercedes Russell and Jaime Nared, who led the Lady Vols in scoring and dominated in the post against USC’s younger, less experienced post players.
“Mercedes Russell, she’s just a big body,” redshirt junior forward Alexis Jennings said. “She’s gonna do what she has to do every game.”
In the first half, the two teams traded body blows in a fast-paced, physical game where four Gamecocks picked up two fouls, a result of Tennessee’s gameplan to attack the rim with abandon, according to UT coach Holly Warlick. It resulted in 28 free throws for the Lady Vols and a pace South Carolina was never quite comfortable with.
“The pace of the game was definitely Tennessee’s. They wanted to get up and down the floor, and I think they were just in attack mode every time they got the ball,” Staley said. “And it wears on you, especially when that’s really not our pace.”
Jennings seemed to be the only player for USC who could contain the 6-foot-6 Russell, but even still, the Lady Vols dominated the boards, 18-13, and shot 52 percent from the field. That lead in rebounds continued through the rest of the game, 41-28, and Tennessee stretched its eight-point halftime lead all the way to 18 with two minutes left in the third quarter.
But Harris ended the period with a buzzer-beater 3-pointer, part of a career performance that included 28 points and four assists, and that, combined with a press defense that forced plenty of Lady Vol turnovers, gave USC some momentum going into the final quarter.
“That’s what great players do,” Staley said of Harris’ effort. “When they’re a player down, they step up, and Ty’s no different. I had no worries that she wouldn’t show up today and score points for us. It’s just that she needed some help.”
The Gamecocks rode that momentum to a furious rally through the first portion of the game’s final 10 minutes, closing to within four points behind stellar play from Jennings and Harris.
But just as it seemed that South Carolina might be able to pull off the miracle comeback, Tennessee reasserted control, going on a 16-4 run to close the game while Staley’s team missing six of its last seven field goal attempts.
Overall, South Carolina ended the game shooting 40.6 percent from the field, its worst mark of the season, and missed layups and other mistakes in execution haunted the Gamecocks, Staley said, as they were forced to expend too much energy clawing their way back into contention.
“We never really got a chance to come up for air,” Staley said of the comeback. “I thought once we got it to four, we would kind of just ride the wave of the crowd and the energy they were putting into the building. But then fatigue set in, obviously. And we couldn’t keep up. They just kept pushing, pushing it at us.”
Adding insult to injury, South Carolina suffered another blow to its depth chart early in the fourth quarter, as sophomore forward Mikiah Herbert Harrigan went down hard with a left leg injury and immediately went to locker room.
After the game, Staley said the injury was not as serious as she had initially feared and that Herbert Harrigan’s ligaments are “strong.” She will undergo an MRI on Monday, as will Wilson, who will have her cast removed on the same day.
In addition to the mostly positive news on the injury front after the game, South Carolina also had a bright spot in freshman forward Lele Grissett, who tied her career highs in points and rebounds for what Staley called the best all-around performance of her young career.
“She had two terrible days in practice, just trying to figure out, knowing she would have to play a bigger role,” Staley said of Grissett. “I told our team at the beginning of the game, I was on them for the last two days, and I don’t think Tennessee will be any worse than I was, so just go out there and play, and she did that, and it was good.”
South Carolina now hits the road to face the SEC’s last-place team, Vanderbilt, on Thursday at 8 p.m.
TENNESSEE (16-1)—Russell 7-9 2-2 16, Davis 5-8 1-2 11, Jackson 2-5 0-2 6, Nared 5-13 11-12 21, Westbrook 6-11 0-4 14, Dunbar 2-2 0-0 6, Green 0-0 1-2 1, Hayes 4-7 3-4 11, Totals 31-55 18-28 86.
SOUTH CAROLINA (14-3)—Herbert Harrigan 3-9 0-2 6, Jennings 5-7 2-3 12, Cliney 4-13 1-2 9, Harris 9-21 7-10 28, Spann 1-4 0-0 3, Grissett 4-5 2-4 10, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Jackson 0-4 2-2 2, Patrick 0-1 0-0 0, Totals 26-64 14-23 70.
3-Point Goals—Tennessee 6-12 (Davis 0-1, Jackson 2-5, Nared 0-2, Westbrook 2-2, Dunbar 2-2), South Carolina 4-15 (Cliney 0-1, Harris 3-8, Spann 1-4, Jackson 0-1, Patrick 0-1). Assists—Tennessee 16 (Westbrook 5), South Carolina 4 (Harris 4). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Tennessee 41 (Russell 12), South Carolina 28 (Grissett 8). Total Fouls—Tennessee 17, South Carolina 20. A—14,763.